Saturday, September 21, 2013

My Lucky Star

It amuses me a bit that one of the quotes Pathfinder cites for their release of Sophie's Revenge comes from my eFilmCritic review (though they sadly mangle the site's URL): "remarkably export-ready for a female-targeted Chinese comedy." I mean, for crying out loud, the only people who are going to read that and get intrigued are people in the film-distribution business. I guess there were only a couple English-language reviews to draw from.

Still, I think the point made by that comment is relevant and applies as much to its prequel, My Lucky Star, perhaps more so when you take them together: These two movies, which Zhang Ziyi produced as well as starred in, demonstrate her ambition to be a global star and do so as much under her own terms as she can.

That she would harbor such ambitions is understandable - her first two features were The Road Home and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the first of which got plenty of art-house notice for being directed by Zhang Yimou and the second of which was an international crossover hit. Then she pops up in Rush Hour 2, but it's five years later, when she does Princess Raccoon in Japan and Memoirs of a Geisha in Hollywood that her career trajectory starts to seem interesting: These are jobs that did not do her reputation any kind of favors in China when she was already fairly unpopular in Hong Kong, but Princess Raccoon pushed her toward being a little more well-known in the region. A couple years later, she does Horsemen, a North American thriller that's rather lower-profile than her usual work. I'm curious about that one, actually, just to see what it looks like

But that's also when she did Sophie's Revenge, which I saw at Fantasia in 2010, where I made the "export-ready" comment. It was a co-production with a Korean company and had a Korean co-star, but also had a lot of English in it. The follow-up isn't a foreign co-production, but still has a lot of English. More tellingly, it's got an American director and an American on the writing staff, and while I don't know that the end result feels more Western in some intangible way, I wonder if this makes it an easier sell to foreign territories. You could probably cut an trailer for it that uses mostly English-language dialogue that doesn't feel like it's hiding very much.

Anyway, it's an interesting pattern - calculated pushing at international markets without seeming to bet everything on Hollywood or abandon China. It's seemed relatively clumsy at times - and there might be more interesting patterns to be drawn if Sophie's Revenge and My Lucky Star were genuinely excellent movies rather than pretty good romantic comedies - but it's an interesting contrast to the Hong Kong stars and filmmakers who bet heavy on Hollywood in the nineties and aughts that she's trying to build up from China rather than use it as a fallback.

For this week, it seems to be doing all right as a strategy - I actually got turned away on Friday because the screen was sold out, which hasn't come close to happening with a China Lion movie before, and the Saturday matinee I did get into was more crowded and had fewer walk-outs than usual. For all that I've made comments about low attendance at these screenings, it's only fair to note when they do really well.

The packed crowd is always fun for these kinds of movies, if only because it can give me a better idea of when something is working but going over my head. In this case, there's a section where Sophie has to sing a couple of songs and I got the impression from the laughter around me that I would have been quite amused if I knew a single thing about current Mandarin pop culture. Were these just popular songs, or maybe specifically songs sung by co-star Wang Lee-hom (who is apparently a popular singer in addition to being a screen heartthrob)? Dunno, but the people around me thought it was funny.

Not sure what they thought of the trailer for Young Detective Dee. I, personally, ate that up with a spoon, and I'm quite excited to be getting that one at the same time as its Chinese release as well. I enjoyed the heck out of Detective Dee, and this one appears to have lizard-people in it. Although, I do have to wonder if anybody from Angelababy's management team has told her that English-speaking crowds laugh whenever her name pops up in trailers or credits.

Feichang Xingyun (My Lucky Star)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2013 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, 4K DCP)

I've said before that making sequels to romantic comedies is a tempting but dangerous idea, but My Lucky Star (Feichang Xingyun in Mandarin) may just have hit upon the best way to follow up such a hit: It's a prequel (of sorts) to Sophie's Revenge that drops that movie's title character into another sort of story. No prior experience necessary, and while it's still got a bit of a calculated feel to it, it's also more fun in some ways.

As the movie opens, Sophie (Zhang Ziyi) is an aspiring comic book artist making ends meet answering phones for a travel agency in Beijing, though she tends to daydream quite a bit. She's lucky enough to win a trip to Singapore, and while her friends Lucy (Ruby Lin Xin-ru) and Lily (Yao Chen) bail on her, she does meet hunky David (Wang Lee-hom) in the parking lot of their luxury hotel. Her attempt to sneak into a party to meet him backfires, though, when it turns out he's a spy, she's just stumbled onto a plan to intercept a dangerous package, and as a result only she can open it.

It's a goofy premise that requires a lot of eye-rollingly silly activity to set up, but Sophie is just the sort of well-meaning, kind of immature spaz that the audience will absolutely believe in that sort of situation. It's surprising that Zhang Ziyi, who has spent much of her career in prestigious period pieces and never done a sequel/prequel before, has opted to return to Sophie, but then again, it is one of the few parts she's had that let her show her knack for comedy and a genuinely peculiar sense of humor. Zhang makes Sophie an enjoyably eccentric and somewhat clueless character that the audience can nevertheless get behind. She seems to be having so much fun even during the action scenes that it's infectious, and she's gotten better at slapstick, too.

Full review at EFC.

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